#8: A Problem that Wasn't a Problem

Sunday / 27 December 2015 / 6 am / Her bed, Singapore

She had woken before sunrise again – it had been happening, quietly, almost everyday for the past few weeks. But this time was different. This time it felt as if she held within her chest a core of nervous energy so tenuously bound to her lungs that it could, at any moment, explode into an all-consuming, unstoppable breathlessness. It felt solid and heavy, this core, but also like an immense nothingness that threatened to suck herself into herself.

Maybe it was the alcohol. It was probably the alcohol, though she only had three drinks the night before. There was something about the almost-ness of the core that seemed so deeply and inevitably physiological, so much so that she was glad it merely trembled on the verge of exploding, and yet somehow it seemed worse that it refused to commit to the eruption. A problem that wasn’t a problem.

She tried to escape into her dreamworld of borrowed fictional characters. There she could immerse herself in imaginary situations, imaginary feelings and thoughts equally intense and maybe sometimes even more painful than her own, but that were at the very least imaginary, that could be twisted and used and analysed in ways that exhibited complete investment and complete detachment all at the same time. She was an observer, a dreamer, a manipulator, never a participant (she had no place in their narrative). Usually it worked; it’s how she lulled herself to sleep these days, especially when she woke up before sunrise. But this time it couldn’t distract her.

Her mind involuntarily searched itself for the whys and hows of this state of being. One part of it knew that the object of that search would only bring her more suffering – but maybe it would be enough to push her over the edge. An explosion has a conclusion, an aftermath. She could be the victim in that scenario. But a burden…?

She momentarily convinced herself that she always needed to know why, as if evidence of an inquisitive mind washed away the sin of anxiety. The moment passed; she realised instead that she always wanted to consider all the what-ifs. She would revel in it and hate herself for doing so. The whys, the ones that were painful and scary simply because they were immutable, those were the ones she avoided. Those were the answers she refused to seek out, but that found her all the same.

Before, she didn’t think it would pain her that he had history with someone else she knew (“pain” in the context of jealousy, or maybe shame, she wasn’t sure). It was fleeting, whatever their entanglement had been – only feelings, only words. But the night before, someone had said something implying the silliness of that other girl in relation to him, and suddenly she had thought of her own entanglement with him – well, an entanglement of which he wasn’t conscious or that he chose to ignore – and she felt stupid. She hated feeling stupid. Whatever it was that she was unsure of, her relative intelligence gave her a degree of strength and confidence and self-worth and superiority. She, like that other girl before, had been thrilled and tortured and entranced by the prospect of a relationship made almost entirely out of letters on a screen, just like that girl who had been characterised as silly. This concept felt, at that point, more defeating than all the unresolved and repressed emotions she had held within her for months.

There’s a martyrdom in unrequited love, but she could only really call herself a martyr if the love was singular, differentiated, bigger than herself. When the nature of it had manifested in someone else before her, someone she knew, directed toward the same boy (they were twenty-five and still she felt like they were just boys and girls), then that unrequited love becomes merely a part of a pattern. He, who had been an aberrant in the lives of two girls who were so unfortunate to have entered his orbit. In that one sentence last night that referred to events from years ago, events that shouldn’t matter, she felt an overwhelming trivialisation of her very being.

It was then that she understood. The core, the void, the alcohol, whatever it was – it was a manifestation of the clash between this expedited process of diminishing, and the months she had spent expanding the depth and complexity and meaning of her own emotions. In essence, she felt decidedly un-special, and it was so palpable as to threaten to draw breath from her lungs.

Her thoughts, poured out now into a glowing rectangle in the darkness, began to grow faint, dissipating just enough that she could comfortably retreat into that imaginary world again, with those borrowed fictional characters and their borrowed fictional love that was epic and wonderful and heartbreaking for the right and noble and complicated reasons, and she forgot for a while that she had burned with those most un-special feelings with the most all-consuming intensity, forgot just enough to drift back to sleep.

Berny Tan